Expert Knowledge and Human Wisdom: A Socratic Note
on the Philosophy of Expertise
Published online: 24 November 2016
Ó Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
Abstract In this paper we attempt to understand what
Socrates says about expertise and virtue in Plato’s dialogue
Laches in the light of Socrates’ idea of ‘‘human wisdom’’
in the Apology of Socrates (20d8, 23a7). Conducting a
good life requires both ‘‘knowledge about good and bad
things’’ (Laches), that is, knowledge about human well-
being, and ‘‘human wisdom’’ (Apology). Socrates aspires to
epistemic autonomy: Trust in your own reason, and don’t
let any expert tell you anything about your own happiness.
Keywords Expertise Á Epistemic autonomy Á Socrates Á
Socratic eudaemonism Á Human well-being
Surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to
believe that one knows what one does not know.
(Plato, The Apology of Socrates 29b)
Expertise prevails our life. There are various kinds of
scientiﬁc expertise, such as medical, technical, economical,
juridical, sociological, and philosophical expertise that we
need or might need for our well-being, for conducting a
good life. Is there also expertise about human well-being
itself? Socrates considers this assumption in Plato’s dia-
logue Laches, and Socrates’ examination of this
assumption sheds light on what experts have to know and
to care about.
2 Socratic Eudaemonism
Since the discussion about expertise in the Laches is
embedded in Socratic eudaemonism, that is, a theory of the
good life (eudaimonia), let us ﬁrst outline what we take to
be the core of Socratic eudaemonism. Socrates exhorts his
interlocutors and fellow-citizens to care for ‘‘the best
possible state of soul’’ (Apology 30a7–b4, 38d) and to
conduct an ‘examining life’, for an ‘‘un-examined life is
not worth living’’ (Apology 37e3–38a7). In Plato’s Socratic
dialogues, Socrates holds the following theses:
(1) Everyone wants to conduct a good/successful life
and so pursues happiness (eudaimonia) (e.g. Sym-
posium 205a, Republic 357b–c).
(2) If one leads a successful life, then one possesses both
virtue (arete), that is, an overall good state of soul,
and ‘‘knowledge of good and bad things’’, that is,
knowledge about human well-being (e.g. Laches
199d4-e1, Charmides 174c1-2).
(3) If one possesses virtue and knowledge about human
well-being, then one is capable of reliably perform-
ing good, beneﬁcial actions (e.g. Laches 199d4-e1,
Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics, University of
We call those dialogues ‘‘Socratic’’ in which Plato’s protagonist
Socrates and his interlocutors pursue questions of the form ‘What is
X?’. Among them are the majority of the early dialogues as well as
some of the middle period, such as the Republic and the Theaetetus.
For recent scholarly discussions of the chronology of Plato’s writings
cf. Nails (2002) and Erler (2007): 22–26.
Topoi (2018) 37:79–89